Carol of the Bed Intruder
On the night of July 27, 2010 a man broke into an apartment in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Huntsville, Alabama and tried to assault Kelly Dodson. With the help of her brother Antoine she fought off the attacker, who fled the scene. The local NBC affiliate WAFF-48 News sent a reporter to their apartment to take some video and interview Kelly. This story started out as pretty standard crime scene reporting. What happened next though, was different.
With the cameras rolling, the flamboyant Antoine warned the audience to “hide your kids and hide your wife” and told the intruder that “we gonna find you.” A video of the news story went viral and inspired a musical remix by The Gregory Brothers called “The Bed Intruder” that ended up as the most watched YouTube video of 2010. With royalties from an iTunes release, Antoine and his family were able to move to a house in a safer neighborhood. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons, and good for them.
What is really interesting for me in this story is what happened at Liberty University. As a little background, Liberty University is an evangelical Christian university founded in 1971 in Lynchburg, Virginia by the Reverend Jerry Fallwell. At Liberty University there is a group of undergraduate students called the Vision Team. While most of the Vision Team’s activities center around serving churches and student ministries throughout the Southeast, they also put on skits and musicals. In 2010 they performed at a Christmas program at the University, which included some original material produced by the group. As shown in the video below, one of these pieces was titled “The Carol of the Bed Intruder.”
It is a remarkably creative and beautiful performance. It is also a little unsettling, which I attribute partly to the contrast between the lyrical subject matter and the context of a Christmas program. The words are the same but the anger of Antoine and Kelly Dodson has been washed away by the spirit of Christmas, as expressed in the singing. I show this video because I believe the story can tell us something about creativity and innovation.
First, much of innovation amounts to simply taking successful ideas from one field and applying them in another. In this case, the Vision Team took “The Bed Intruder” song and transformed it into a Christmas carol. The a cappella part at the end is particularly delightful. I would not have believed it, but it really works. Second, I would expect that the idea for “Carol of the Bed Intruder” had to overcome a lot of internal skepticism. Importantly, within a small and intimate group like the Vision Team, an innovative leader can overcome this initial skepticism. At a big company this idea would have been sent packing, possibly along with the person who suggested it. As is evident from the video, the Vision Team leader looks and acts like someone willing to chart her own course and confident in making her own decisions. I think it took courage for her and the Vision Team to produce that piece and perform it at their Christmas program. The audience leaps to its feet at the end, clapping and cheering, but I would expect that there were Liberty administrators in the crowd who did not clap or cheer so loudly. The leader of the Vision Team took a risk with “Carol of the Bed Intruder.”
This gets me to my last point, that advocating something innovative makes a person vulnerable. Why was the leader of the Vision Team willing to take that risk when many others might not have? My guess is that the small size and structure of the Vision Team is what made this possible. Social scientists have noted that humans can generally establish strong trust relationships with about 40 – 50 people at a time. There is speculation that we inherit this trait from our hunter-gatherer ancestors who traveled in groups of this size, often composed of extended families and clans. In smaller companies with less than 50 people, strong trust relationships can develop, allowing innovators to push new product ideas without undue fear that they will lose face or be seriously undermined by a rival if the product fails. In larger companies with hundreds or even thousands of people, employees watch their back more closely and are more cautious in taking risks, often resulting in corporate incrementalism. At smaller companies people can show some of their inner Antoine.
I would like to acknowledge and thank Michael O’Shaughnessy for reviewing this post and providing helpful comments and edits.